I have taught at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ) four times, now. The first three courses, I taught male inmates, but this recent class is for females. I can distinctly remember how nervous I felt walking into the classroom that first time years ago. It was early on a Friday morning—sun blazing—and I was not yet caffeinated. Words Without Walls was young and so was I; I had not yet published anything, I was not yet a graduate of an MFA program, nor a high school creative writing teacher, like I am now.
A lot has changed since my first course at the ACJ. In the two plus years that have passed since I last set foot in the big brick building on the river, the program has expanded, gained more funding, has all new teachers, and even has its own impressive anthology and workbook.
But one thing never changes at the ACJ: unpredictability.
In the five weeks that Jonnny and I have been teaching the Monday women’s course, one class has been canceled due to lockdown, one for Columbus Day, one for some kind of electronic security issue, and one has been severely delayed due to lockdown. Our class rhythm has “been disrupted,” to put it lightly. Jonny and I often lock our things in the little employee lockers, go through the metal detectors, up the elevator, through the familiar door marked “Shift Commanders” and make it down to the classrooms before someone gives us a look that says, “hasn’t anyone told you, yet?”
When I came in tonight (November 16), I found out a pod was being “shaken down” and the ladies probably wouldn’t make it out of lockdown in a timely manner. I almost cried, not because the situation warrants heavy emotion, but because it’s exhausting—especially for us Type A teachers—to have plans disrupted and revised time and time again. I almost cried out of exasperation for the women, for whom this kind of unpredictability is not a once a week inconvenience, but a daily way of life. Jonny and I began to pack up our things to leave and go home, somewhat defeated, but got sidetracked by someone from IT.
I am not good with unpredictability. I get annoyed when someone I’m meeting for coffee is more than five minutes late; I get irritated when I oversleep or stay out late and my morning routine gets disrupted. I frequently feel frustrated when a grocery store is out of something I want, or when something I expect to teach in 20 minutes takes my high school students an hour to learn. What if variability was my life, as it is—maybe somewhat surprisingly—for the ladies at the ACJ?
I didn’t cry. We didn’t leave. I worked with Jonny and IT to resolve our computer network problems (another unexpected wrench in our teaching plans for the semester). Eventually, about 45 minutes late, our four core students came down to class. They looked thrilled to be there.
As they sat typing away at the (now functional) computers, I thought about how maybe, just maybe, all this unpredictability is important. Maybe our students are learning something more valuable than point of view or the significance of show, don’t tell. Life is unpredictable—a lesson I surely don’t need to “teach” the students at the ACJ. Sometimes life is on lockdown, or rioting against you, or just sucking in a truly annoying way.
What we maybe can teach each other, here, is that writers write anyway. If you wait for the perfect moment, the perfect, full class, the perfect classroom, the perfect morning routine, you’ll never get a word on a page in this life. Whether you live in Bloomfield or on Pod 4C, life is unpredictable; writers have to show up, embrace the chaos as much as possible (maybe even find humor in it), and steal away for whatever moments we can find.
We from the privileged MFA-land are certainly our own worst obstacles. We have desks and computers and notebooks and pens, always waiting for us to fill them. All this unpredictability is a good reminder to show up. That’s all you can do.
When class is changed or canceled, do the reading anyway. Write anyway.
When security has been breached.
When you’re not in the mood.
On Columbus day, or another holiday, or a day you just wished would go away, it’s good to remember that all a true writer should really need for consistency and comfort is a pen with plenty of ink, something to write on, and something to say.
The rest is just stuff. The rest will work itself out.
Jess Server, Teacher